Tag Archives: Informal Science

Summer is on the way and it's a great time to have a bin or box of items on hand for when the kids are looking for something to do. Last year I suggested 25 items for investigating physical science. This year let's gather 25 items that will be sure to excite your child's inner chemist. (Note:  These suggestions are mostly for ages 5+ and always keep safety in mind by reading and following the safety warnings on the labels of any product.)chemistry-bin

Chemistry-themed activity box:

1. Measuring cups and spoons

2. Clear plastic cups to serve as beakers - washable and reusable, or clean baby food jars

3. Goggles for eye protection, one set for each child

4. Clean plastic soda or water bottles for mixing

5. A big box of cornstarch, to mix with about equal parts water to make cornstarch goo. Kids of all ages love to revisit this messy activity again and again. Mix outside or cover the table with a large garbage bag for ease of clean up. See also activity 4 of the Agricultural Science post for instructions for making cornstarch plastic.

6. Bubble mix -or the ingredients to make bubbles, see bubble science , rainbow bubbles. Add glow paint or glowing highlighters to make glowing bubbles.

7. Blackboard chalk and/or sidewalk chalk - see what liquids dissolve chalk (water, lemon juice. vinegar, soda, etc.)

8. Hydrogen peroxide - for elephant's toothpaste

9. Rubbing alcohol - use to build a density column

10. Tonic water and a black light for more glowing chemistry

11. Vegetable oil, food coloring and water to study oil and water separation
, make a lava lamp

12. Vinegar- common acid to explore acids and bases

13. Baking soda to make volcanoes and rockets. For an incredibly simple, yet effective volcano: Have your child make a volcano shaped heap in a sandbox or loose soil, if no sandbox is available. Make a hole in the top, about 1 1/2 inches deep, and pour in some baking soda. Then pour in about 1/2 cup vinegar and stand back for the eruption. The cone can be rebuilt again and again. Add red food coloring to the vinegar to simulate lava. (Celebrate Chemistry has more information).

. Yeast- see #15 and elephant's toothpaste (#8)

15. Sugar, balloon and a water bottle. Mix the yeast, sugar and water in the bottom of the water bottle and then cover the opening with the un-inflated balloon. Watch what happens as the yeast begins to grow. Also, add sugar to your bubble mix (#6).

16. Tumeric - can be used as a pH indicator, see acids and bases section of Chemistry Day post.

17. Salt - chemistry of rust, for example

18. Baby oil - density columns and lava lamps

19. Iodine - for older kids, indicates presence of starch. Iodine is available at many pharmacies. See Iodine Chemistry post for experiment ideas

20. Dish detergent- useful for DNA extraction and elephant's toothpaste (see #8)

21. Mentos candy and soda for geysers - I know it has been overdone and it is definitely a messy outdoor project, but kids do still like it. Soda is also useful for exploring acids and bases.

How to get started from Steve Spangler (there is a pop-up ad):


22. Metal objects such as nails, washers, paper clips, etc. Place in jars with either plain water, water plus salt, or plain vinegar and see what happens. (Chemistry of Rust)

23. pH paper - If you don't have a favorite science supply store, pH paper can be found in garden supply stores for soil testing or some aquarium suppliers for water testing.

Other items to have on hand in the fridge:

24. Lemon juice can also be used to make invisible ink and with Pennies, nails. Add lemon juice from the kitchen to clean the penny, and copper plate the nail.

25. Red cabbage juice to explore acids and bases, or make a fried green egg


All you need is red cabbage from the grocery store, a blender (adult help), glasses or plastic cups and items to mix with the red cabbage solution, such as lemon juice, soda, vinegar, baking soda, dish detergent and laundry detergent.

Some recipes call for boiling the cabbage (smelly!), but you can just grind up the fresh red cabbage in small batches with enough water to allow the blender to work properly. Pour the batches together in a pitcher, which can be placed in the refrigerator for use later in the day if necessary or even frozen. Pour about 1/3 cup of the red cabbage juice into testing containers such as clear glasses or plastic cups. Then mix in about a Tablespoon of one of the testing compounds. Does the color change? Try another material in the next glass. Does the color change more if you add more test material? What happens if you mix two materials, like vinegar and laundry detergent? Have fun admiring the wild colors you can make.

You can also use frozen mixed berries ground in the blender with a bit of water. The mixed berries smelled better, although they don’t give quite as good a range of colors as the red cabbage.


We'd love to hear your suggestions for more fun ways to explore chemistry with kids!

Are you prepared for some hands-on science at home? Summer is a great time for informal science and now is the time to get ready.

From experience, I recommend that you gather items and put together a box for children to use to explore physical sciences whenever the mood strikes. The items you supply don't have to be big or expensive. but if you have it on hand and gathered together, it won't take a minute to get started.

Here are some tried-and-true suggestions that will be sure to ignite your child's inner investigator. Have multiples of each item, and a set for each child you are working with. (Note:  These suggestions are for ages 3+ and always keep safety in mind.)

1. Paper and scissors - for paper airplanes, helicopters, bridges, drawing designs, recording data, etc., etc.

2. Plastic drinking straws to make into kazoos, atomizers, droppers, bridges, you name it

3. Paper towel tubes to make marble towers, airplanes

4. Manila file folders to make ramps, airplanes, etc.

5. Plastic garbage bags or cloth, bits of yarn or string, and action figures to make parachutes (parachute activity)

6. Wheels to make cars and/or toy cars to roll down ramps (inclined planes)

7. Marbles and small balls for marble towers, study what happens when two objects collide by playing marbles (relationships of mass and force)

8. Balloons to make cars, hover craft, drums, etc. (Suggestions for activities with balloons)

9. Magnets, a variety of kinds plus items to test, such as paper clips of different types, coins, the rocks below (Edit: magnet science activities)

10. Stop watch, watch with second hand, or other timing device

11. Flashlight - important tool for investigating shadows, light, how batteries work, etc.

12. Thermometer- alcohol or electronic/digital (for safety, do not use a mercury-based one)

13. Magnifying lenses to study surfaces of rocks, magnets

14. Prisms to investigate light (we got a very inexpensive crystal pendent that works to separate visible light into rainbows)

15. Aluminum foil - great for building boats or make a Leyden jar to study static electricity

16. Building blocks

17. Ruler - both for measuring and to use as a ramp (inclined plane), support, etc.

18. Toy boats to study buoyancy

19. Modeling clay to study floating and sinking, make fossils

20. Clean tin cans with all sharp edges removed (for tin can science)

21. Tape - all kinds, glue

22. Plastic soda or water bottles to make boats, cover with balloon and place in very warm water

23. Pencils, chop sticks, wooden skewers, dowels and/or craft sticks

24. Spools, pulleys

25. Some cool rocks or pebbles can become loads for cars and boats or be an introduction to geology

Pennies make good weights for the front of file-folder airplanes.

More advanced items to make or buy pre-made:

  • Inexpensive kites (often available in grocery stores for just a dollar or two), or balsa wood, string, tape and paper to make kites
  • Electrical circuit kits (may be available used or at discount stores that sell returned/discontinued items)
  • Inexpensive kitchen scale (garage sales) or materials to make a homemade scale
  • Plastic tubing (an aquarium supply) to learn about siphons, investigate propulsion
  • Make a trebuchet or catapult

If you have any other ideas for items to include for physical science activities, please let us know. Also, if you need further suggestions or instructions, my "engineer" and I would be glad to help.

Stay tuned for suggestions for a chemistry activity box and a biology activity box.

Here at Growing With Science, we're entering our fourth year of promoting "informal science," and so we were pleased to see A Special Report on Informal Science Learning from the April 1, 2011 Education Week that discusses how important it can be. (You may read the Overview without registering by going here.)

Informal science is any opportunity to explore science outside of the traditional classroom setting. As the author of the article writes, it may be a trip to the zoo, a science competition, or an after school robotics club.

That's all very good, but let's consider another factor. The best way to inspire future scientists and science literate citizens is to make sure the child is allowed to follow his or her own interests and passions in these informal settings. Learning is more likely to stick if the child is allowed to explore his or her personal questions. Here's a few reasons why:

  1. Following a child's interest allows the child to place any answers discovered into a relevant conceptual framework. Sometimes "experiments" today are demonstrations given randomly, out of context and with little explanation. Following the child's questions allows him or her to add inner context.
  2. Child-led exploration builds the child's confidence in his or her ability to generate and test pertinent questions. Letting the child be the "chief scientist" will often lead you to astonishing places.
  3. It is always easier to work hard at something that interests and excites you.

If you ask a given scientist what led him or her to pursue a scientific career, you will often find the answer is that having free time to explore interests as a child was a big, and often critical, factor. For example, one scientist I know made an insect collection in his spare time as a child, with little or no guidance from adults. His achievement gave him the confidence to consider science as a career. Another scientist admits finding some dusty old meteorites in a museum as a child that sparked his interest in becoming a geologist. That isn't to say that their career choices weren't molded by mentors in later years, but the initial trigger is often an opportunity to explore during childhood.

Are you ready to take off with some informal science?

These are just a sample of the numerous resources available:

Try Scientific American's - Bring Science Home
Home projects for children and parents using household items - more added throughout the month.

You might also want to go to the Scientific American homepage and visit the education tab and Citizen Science for older children/young adults.

Teacher Network has an informative article about Starting a Science Club.

Check out the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for a list of accredited zoos and aquariums to visit, and then click on the Education tab for more ideas.

Edit:  Just found Hands-On Science Activities at Exploratorium After School.

Have you heard about the World Science Festival being held in New York City June 1-5, 2011? Should be plenty of opportunities to learn about science there. You will need to go to the website and order tickets. The regular prices are adult - $30, student/youth - $15, but there seem to be many promotions and group rates, so shop around.

And if you are interested in finding out more about raising a scientist, Dr. Biologist at "Ask A Biologist" has a series of podcasts of interviews with scientists. He usually asks the interviewees how they got their start towards the end of each interview.

Please let me know if you have any ideas, questions, comments or additional resources you would like to share.